Since the times when Europeans first set out “exploring” the majority of the world (a polite way of describing the hundreds of years of slavery, mass murder, rape and genocide otherwise known as colonialism), white culture has had an obsession with mocking, parodying, and stealing from the styles, cultures, and lives of people of colour. This infatuation with insultingly misrepresenting peoples of colour as a key part of white entertainment has developed alongside the rest of American popular culture- in the late 19th and early 20th centuries it became particularly popular in the form of minstrel shows, which consisted of comedy, dancing, and music, performed by white (and sometimes black) people in Blackface. These shows were embarrassing parodies of african-american culture, evoking stereotypes like the lazy buffoon and portraying the culture as whimsical, superficial and foolish.
Even Iggy Azalea’s fake hood accent is reminiscent of ‘stump speech‘. The parody of black culture is a staple of American entertainment – from blaxploitation films to Miley Cyrus absolutely butchering an attempt at twerking (which btw, is the first Youtube search result for this originally street style of dancing), you can see evidence of the media’s reduction of street culture to a half-baked and comical misinterpretation. And the worst part is, these types of entertainers are becoming some of the biggest rappers out there, by appropriating a rapidly growing trend – Trap Music.
Trap Music is a genre that came out of the hood. It was made by criminalized black youth telling the world their stories of personal struggle and especially, bragging about overcoming adversity to get money and respect. It is a young genre, rapidly gaining recognition, and also dramatically changing. One thing that sticks out about the evolution of trap music, is the increase in white rappers and also rappers coming from middle-class, non-criminal roots. This was a quick progression from rappers like T.I and Gucci Mane, who write (with some cred) about how they came up selling cocaine and carrying guns – to rappers like Drake claiming to have “come from the bottom” even though he clearly came from privileged roots – and eventually to Iggy Azalea talking about record deals as if they were shady drug transactions.
Iggy Azalea is a white Levi’s Jeans model from Australia who uploaded some freestyles to Youtube and went viral, the Sn almost immediately got signed to two major labels. She claims that success in the rap/music industry is based solely on hard work and that anybody can be a big-time celebrity if they just try hard enough like she did (I think she brags about scrubbing some floors in one of her songs – that’s some real shit, eh?). Her supposed goal is to “make people question and redefine old ideals” — likely a reference to her often stated desire to make rap less about black culture. Azalea frequently braggs about being white in her music– she’s even gone so far as to write a punchline about being a “runaway slave master” in one of her songs, which she says“has been used to unfairly slander [her] character and paint [her] as a racist person.” So not only does she feel she has the right to use the medium of gangster rap to joke about being a “slave master”…. she also sees it as “unfair” that she gets criticism for it.
Judging by the content of her interviews and lyrics, Iggy seems to see this as a form of rebellion against a perceived black supremacy in hip-hop. She has obviously never had to deal with any racism, nor will she ever, but what she is saying echos the sentiment of many people when the topic of ‘cultural appropriation’ comes up – people who perceive the empowerment of minorities as an encroachment of their rights. The reasoning behind this sentiment is generally that white people aren’t ‘allowed’ to do certain things that other people are, and they see it as an example of oppression. They fight back against this with a kind-of “fuck all the haters” attitude, as if they are also fighting against the same degree of adversity and overcoming equally unfair discrimination. Iggy Azalea uses the language of social justice to argue that everyone (no matter their skin tone or background) has an equal claim to rap, and goes as far as saying “This idea that rap should be black is almost like Segregation” …yup.
This comes out of a sense of entitlement that has long defined white culture. Because so many white people have been allowed access to almost everything, it comes a shock when they face even slight criticism for their participation in something. North American people of colour are well accustomed to being criticized and left out at an early age – by seeing overwhelmingly white protagonists in television and movies, being educated in school about European history as the norm (and other cultures as ‘special’ topics) and being taught that whiteness is generally the default, whether it be in terms of culture, appearance, history, etc.
Many of the people who rise to Iggy’s defence on comment threads and social media sites fall back on the claim that any criticisms of her are simply criticisms of a female who has broken through the glass ceiling of a male-dominated music genre. This argument does not hold water when you consider how many of the white female rappers who are gaining popularity right now are actively being misogynist by cashing in on the racist and sexist objectification of women of colour. Watching people like Lil’ Debbie and Kreashawn, I’ve gotta ask- Why are you rapping about your white girl crew, while these black women are shaking their booties all around you? Are these just video hoes? If you’re all about your white girls, why are you choosing to objectify the black girls? The [exotic] objectification of women of colour is not something new, but there is something to be said about the increase in white female rappers that are partaking in this.
There is big a difference between Beyonce having a posse of curvacious brown-skinned women dancing in her videos, and Lil’ Debbie’s video ‘Ratchets’ – while the “girl power” messages in Beyonce’s songs are often pretty shallow and unrealistic the portrayals of black women in her videos are still showing, at least on a superficial level, that brown skin, more than 10% body fat, and sometimes kinky hair, are sexy, beautiful, glamourous, and should be shown off. The women in Lil’ Debbie’s video, however, are little more than a joke- dressed in thong swimsuits emblazoned with the Budweiser beer logo and unflattering orange wigs that appear to be some kind of satirical approximation of “ghetto” hairstyles, their curvy bodies and dark skin are shown as a stark contrast to Lil’ Debbie’s pale, wiry physique and platinum blond hair. While she blatantly puts them down in her lyrics, the women are shown in degrading and animal-like poses that emphasize their bodies and de-emphasize their faces and individuality. And then we have Miley Cyrus’s recent performance at the VMA’s,’ where people of colour could be seen cringing in the audience at Cyrus frantically sexualizing black girls.
Hip hop culture and rap music were created as a reaction to a white-dominated narrative in music, movies, literature, fashion and dance. During rap’s inception, minority cultures like african-americans had intense stories to tell, but no venue for them. Rapping became a way to do this. And yes, rap is great and lots of people like it – and I’m not trying to say white suburban kids can’t rap, but white rappers must approach the hip-hop world responsibly, acknowledging their privileges such as skin tone and class, and their culture’s previous (and current) exploitation of black people. In an interview with Hardknock.tv, Azalea claims that “there are no cheat codes” when it comes to commercial success. This may true in a literal sense – but it ignores the fact that having white skin often serves as a “cheat code” and in many situations – legal, personal and professional – can make the difference between success and failure.
Macklemore, another white rapper, has taken a different approach to these issues than Azalea, releasing the song White Privilege, where he talks about and recognizes his own unfair advantages in the music world and in society in general, and the importance of blackness in hip-hop. This type of sincerity is a breath of fresh air in a sea of posers and a meaningful contribution to the discussion about cultural appropriation. Hopefully as we see more public discussion about appropriation and race in the music industry, more artists, instead of uncritically cashing in on the co-optation of marginalized peoples’ cultures, will start challenging their own privilege in meaningful, visible ways.